Opinion: Devolution and federalism – the missing ingredient

union flag 1606The missing ingredient in Maria Pretzler’s thought-provoking piece (“We urgently need a new policy on devolution and federalism“) is nationalism.

The first politician in whose interest it was to bring the kingdoms of Scotland and England together was the King of Scots James VI. His solution was to reconcile the two nations by proclaiming himself King of Great Britain in 1604, and then in 1606 creating a Union flag, combining St George’s Cross with the saltire. The Scottish king saw Britishness as a supranational idea, and this is well understood in Scotland.

Nationalism can be destructive, but does not need to be if its role in binding a community together is recognised. In the United Kingdom, that means being fully aware of the national identities within the state and giving them formal expression. How can this be done while ensuring democratic governance of the people? Clearly not by a unitary state, especially now that Parliament has ceased to have its 1689 sense of Crown, Lords and Commons, so that the sovereignty of Parliament in practice refers to the Commons alone, with all the risks of the dictatorship of a parliamentary majority which that entails. If sovereignty resides with the people, as per the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s 1989 Claim of Right, then the institutions of the state need to be constructed to give effect to what the people want.

The federal idea gives equal weight to representing the population as a whole and the constituent parts of which the country is composed. Taking the nations as these constituent parts creates a balance of forces analogous to the former balance between Lords and Commons, but more democratic because based on people’s perceptions of their own identity. This balance means that a majority of the population can be prevented from getting its own way if it does not persuade a majority of the state’s constituent areas. Since England will always prevail in the lower house, it should not be artificially divided to ensure that the majority of the population always prevails in the upper house.

Quite separate from the idea of giving a legitimate role to nationalism within a federal structure is the European Union’s idea of subsidiarity, or taking all decisions at the lowest possible level. The referendum in Scotland has energised voters to take part in political decision-making, and local government structures need to be small enough to allow this feeling of empowerment to be generated and sustained. Should the UK be looking at France, with more than 36,000 communes of which Paris is just one, but numerous intercommunal associations designed to deliver together what the individual communes cannot do alone? Both nations and parishes are component parts of identity, and both need to be reflected in governmental structures with appropriate powers and a requirement to involve the citizens, in order to minimize the risks of capture by interest groups or elites.


* Dr Clive Sneddon is convener of Angus & Mearns Liberal Democrats, but writing in a personal capacity.

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  • I think that the best outcome from the referendum would be that the UK remained intact, but adopted a federal structure. Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland / London are obvious existing units, and then we have the English regions – say North East / North West / East Anglia / South East / West Country.

    As with constituencies the aim should be to balance population numbers and regional identity.

  • @ ruf

    ” As with constituencies the aim should be to balance population numbers and regional identity. ”

    No it shouldn’t!!

    What part of England is a country do you not understand!

    England is an entity, a nation, an identity, a set of values, and exactly the same rules that have been given to the celtic fringe should be applied to England, if you value in any way the continuation of the British union.

    I’ll play your stupid game of balanced population numbers and identity by suggesting this idea .

    The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are all Celtic nations in contrast to England being Anglo Saxon, and they have a total population approaching 10 million, so here is my idea, amalgamate them into Celticland, and they can have a parliament of their own, and England can have a parliament. Or perhaps following your line of thought, we can chop the country up into convenient chunks of about 10 million.

    The North
    The South
    The Midlands
    The East
    The West.

    There you go another stupid idea, which fits both your criteria of identity and population size.

    England is the majority nation in these islands, and as long as a union survives in whatever form, the views of the majority population should prevail, that is democracy,. Fiddling the process to create the result you want is a travesty of democracy, and will increasingly no longer be tolerated,by those your party seems happy to disfranchise for party political advantage.

    For the Editors:

    It is quite annoying to post a comment , which is then responded to, only to have my response automatically triggering requirement for editor authority, before it disappears for ever into the ether. I had a perfectly reasonable response on another thread consigned to File 13. At least have the courtesy of indicating that a post has been deleted to avoid the impression being created that the original poster is ignoring the respondent.

  • When if Scotland goes all bets are off as they say it’s not a brave new world it’s full of uncertainty and likely here and probably in the EU to trigger more nationalism

    Personaly I also fear the probability that it will increase the risk of wars not specific within the UK but more generally

    I also have to think what this may do for the royal family and it’s current role, I doubt that her majesty will be reading posts here but I thank her for the work and devotion she has given the entire Union I pray that if yes comes she will continue being a national treasure this sounds a bit silly even to me but Long live the Queen thank you your majesty

    Very worrying times and I fear a step nearer for EU exit

  • jedibeeftrix 15th Sep '14 - 11:30am

    I have always been happy to call myself a British nationalist.

    It really depends on the brand, and I am happy to subscribe to civic nationalism.

  • @Raddiy I do value the continuation of the union, and it is precisely because I think that the people of England should have the same level of democratic accountability as those in Scotland or Wales that I am in favour of a federal solution.

    Your argument would suggest that you think that the whole of England should have one county council, and that there shouldn’t be a London assembly? I would have regions so that each body with the same powers was taking care of approximately the same number of people, while respecting the fact that different parts of the country speak differently, have different histories and concerns.

    It wouldn’t make anybody any less English.

    And if you really think that there is no such thing as regional identity within England – I suggest you try telling that to a Geordie or a Yorkshireman (but put your running shoes on first) 😉

  • jedibeeftrix 15th Sep '14 - 11:38am

    Actually raddiy, I quite like your idea of Celtic land, not so daft after all.

    Even a no vote will have consequ nces for English democracy as a result of further devo Max style transfers.

    That said, I’m not convinced by the idea of chopping the county up into 11 chunks of 5 million.

    When we talk of the heptarchy we forget that only four of the seven were of any significant size, so your suggestion works rather better than first glance might suggest.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '14 - 11:52am

    “When we talk of the heptarchy” … I think that’s a royal “we”, Jedi …

  • I actually dont mind if the devolved solution is technically Federal or not, I have no objection in principle to an English Parliament, my only worry is that we wont get people to vote for all these new bodies. Most Voters just dont love Voting the way we Politicos do.
    Nationalism is always negative, even when its opposed to Empire. The very 1st result of Indian Independence was to to split the Old India into 4 new countries & the 2nd was for Millions of people to try to kill each other. The nature of Nationalism is to construct an image of The Nation & to exclude those who dont fit.

  • ” And if you really think that there is no such thing as regional identity within England – I suggest you try telling that to a Geordie or a Yorkshireman (but put your running shoes on first) ;-)”

    I am a North Easterner( not a Geordie)living on the mythical border of EU region North East and EU region Yorkshire and Humber.

    I am probably descended in some way from the pre Roman Celtic Brigantian Federation that occupied the land from the industrial belt in Scotland down to the M62. I could also consider myself a descendent of post Roman Bernicians((Geordies) who along with the Deiran(Tykes) eventually became kith and kin under Northumbria, which also included Scouses as well. who all eventually fell under the Danelaw stretching far to the south, which eventually merged with Mercia and Wessex and became England. Hence I am English.

    I want to be governed by the English for the benefit of the English, I have had decades since the West Lothian Question cropped up to learn the hard lesson that those with split loyalties, and I include your party stuffed with Scots who never act in the interests of the English people, when decision of this type are made. It is always how can we eviscerate the majority identity to the advantage of minorities.

    Do you consider the Scottish and Welsh parliaments county councils, if not why do you devalue your argument by being condescending about an English Parliament. No I would not abolish the London assembly, the London of today has about as much in common with wider England as Scotland does. I would float London off in a Washington DC sort of solution in a federal system, and establish an English parliament as far away from London as is possible,

    York is my preference. any attempt to maintain London as the political centre of England under federalism would in my opinion ensure the second class status of the rest of England would be maintained by the metropolitan ‘British’ political class. London is no longer representative of the hopes and aspirations of wider England, whether that be Yarmouth,Whitehaven, Torquay or Barking and should be removed from the equation. What we certainly don’t need is the sort of toothless regional devolution that Prescott tried to con the North East with, which I seem to remember had the support of the LibDems.

    Your idea is yesterdays cobbled together solution, because of the fraud of the devolution settlement, I would suggest persisting with it when it has been completely discredited is political suicide.

    England will have its own parliament!!

  • jedibeeftrix 15th Sep '14 - 1:31pm

    @ Malcolm – there has been plenty of talk on how a English devolution could be modelled on the old kingdoms.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '14 - 1:58pm

    Well, if you say so Jedi.
    But my point really is that reference to “heptarchy” and to early medieval kingdoms is rather obviously an academic game of whatiffery, and bears no relation to people’s presently perceived realities, political, national, identity-based or otherwise. No one here in Notts longs for an autonomous Mercia; the people of Blackpool and York would be sorely unimpressed at being told they belonged to Northumbria; and while Alex Salmond may be delighted at being offered the chance to annexe Cumbria, as being part of Strathclyde rather than any of the seven kingdoms, it is to be doubted that the present-day English would take it lying down.
    I don’t know what the answer to English federalism is, whether or not Scotland leaves (though if it does that would make it easier, I think). But it had better be based on modern political realities rather than historicist fantasy. Otherwise, I’ll have to start agitating for the renewed independence of Dorne…

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '14 - 2:01pm

    “I would float London off in a Washington DC sort of solution in a federal system, and establish an English parliament as far away from London as is possible.”
    Gosh — for the first time that I can recall, Raddiy, I think you may have said something sensible! Though I’m not sure what London would think of being told it wasn’t really part of England.

  • @Raddiy

    1. “London is no longer representative of the hopes and aspirations of wider England” – Agreed.

    2. “What we certainly don’t need is the sort of toothless regional devolution that Prescott tried to con the North East with, which I seem to remember had the support of the LibDems.” – Agreed.

    As someone who lives in East Anglia, I’d like a powerful regional assembly which can focus on the concerns and challenges of our mainly rural population. Otherwise we’ll continue to get a raw deal compared to the more densely populated areas.

  • I don’t believe that England would be any better run by a single English Parliament than it is now. Regions like Yorkshire and East Anglia (also my point of origin if that’s at all relevant) get completely overlooked and still would.

    I would be able to support it if the Raddiy idea of hiving off London into its own federal unit were carried forward. The English state resulting would in my opinion not be ideal and would be better split into Yorkshire, Wessex and England (Other), which may then decide to revive East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland. But there’s a chance that it’ll pull it off and end up doing an ok job, and provided London is out it will at least not just turn into a rerun of Westminster.

    This is of course assuming we still have a UK to reform by next week, but either way I believe England needs to break with the centralised in London situation that it’s stuck with now.

  • “only four of the seven were of any significant size”

    Only three: Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. East Anglia had some transient military power, but was not prominent in size.
    There were also many more than seven political units.

  • David Evershed 15th Sep '14 - 3:15pm

    There seems to be an expectation that ‘country’ or regional assemblies will enable their area to get a a bigger slice of the UK cake.

    This clearly can not be true for all of them, even if it has worked for Scotland so far.

    Local people will be less keen on the devolution of powers when they realise they are the ones having to implement cuts because the budget can never be big enough.

    This is happening now as central goverment passes care services to local government, giving local councils the task of make the hard choices. Sometimes it is easier to make rational hard choices when you are further away from the problem.

  • Maybe it’s read Thomas Hardy and disapproves?

  • Glenn Andrews 15th Sep '14 - 4:10pm

    As a son of one of the eight counties of wessx; I look forward to the day when we can drink un-taxed cider and be free from health and safety regulations when chasing a cheese down a hill or kicking a shin in a competitive environment…. and of course the legal requirement for all visitors to speak in a phonic accent.

  • @Glenn – I like your thinking. Maybe we could have free movement between rural regions, but no townies allowed?

  • Gordon Lishman 15th Sep '14 - 5:26pm

    “England is ……….. a set of values”.
    What are they and how do they differ from other countries’ sets of values?
    What is the evidence that either the “countries” or the “nations” of the UK have different sets of values?
    As I recall the polling evidence, it suggests that, once issues of income, education and a few other variables are controlled, there is no discernible difference.

  • Yorkshire Guidon 15th Sep '14 - 5:45pm

    A survey by Huddersfield University on BBC Politics yesterday showed 75.8% want devolved power to Yorkshire.
    It can be seen here about 53 mins in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04gmm44/sunday-politics-yorkshire-and-lincolnshire-14092014

  • NickBarlow asks:
    “Oh, and is anyone else disturbed by the comment that London has little in common with ‘wider England’?”
    The really disturbing bit, is that Liberal Democrats, seem unable to grasp it as fact?

  • “Oh, and is anyone else disturbed by the comment that London has little in common with ‘wider England’?”

    I’m English and I have far more in common with Scotland than I do with London. I regard London as effectively being in a different country, as do many of my fellow English.

  • @Mary Reid: “We’ll try to create an exception but in the meantime, perhaps you could refer to it as Wessx!!!”

    Fram heonan ic sceal efne þa ealde Westseaxa spræce sprecan!

  • @Mary Reid: “We’ll try to create an exception but in the meantime, perhaps you could refer to it as Wessx!!!”

    Thanks Mary, I laughed a lot when I read that.

  • Clive Sneddon 16th Sep '14 - 1:30am

    Reading through the comments so far leaves me with the feeling my core idea has been missed – perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. I want to channel nationalism, not free it to wreak havoc, and channelling nationalism requires ‘nationhood’ (for want of a better term) to be recognised and used as a core building block of the state.

    @JUF “…London are obvious existing units”.
    As a native Londoner, I do not recognise London as a nation, and have yet to meet a Londoner who does. As a quarter-Scot and resident in Scotland for more than half my life, I know that Scotland is another country, forcing me to recognise that I am English, yet if Scotland now votes for independence I will feel I have been turned into an ex-pat living in exile overnight, when I have hitherto felt entirely at home in Scotland.

    @Raddiy “No it shouldn’t!!”
    I agree that population numbers are irrelevant to nationhood. The number of nationals a nation has depends entirely on who identifies as a member of that nation. The difficulty in constructing a UK based on nationhood is that not enough of the folk living in England can agree on what nation they belong to – and as you clearly know, British does not mean English or London elite. King James VI assumed the English knew who they were and wanted to give both English and Scots a supranational identity through being part of Great Britain and hence his British subjects.

    @Raddiy “the views of the majority population should prevail, that is democracy”
    No it isn’t. It is majoritarianism or the dictatorship of the majority. What my idea of national states comprising a United Kingdom entails is, as I said, a balance of power between two houses of Parliament, a point which so far no one seems to have picked up, in order to ensure no nation in the union can be dictated to by any other; any attempt to subdivide England will look in your ‘Celticland’ like another English attempt to ensure English dominance of the Union, and will feed, not extinguish, separatism.

    @JUF “I would have regions so that each body with the same powers was taking care of approximately the same number of people, while respecting the fact that different parts of the country speak differently, have different histories and concerns.”
    As far as numbers go, what is sauce for the national goose is sauce tor the regional gander. The number of people belonging to a region depends entirely on who identifies as belonging to that region. And the difficulty in deciding the ‘how many regions?’ question is precisely that loyalties may well overlap geographically and prevent neat borders being drawn. As for speech, history and concerns, what is crucial is that people feel that their concerns are being heard and addressed, and this is where Maria Pretzler’s two posts are relevant. So too are the ideas in the 2012 Campbell Commission report downloadable from icas.org.uk/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=12884904879. What I was suggesting was looking more closely at the French associations of communes, which allow local government to be close to the people but to work together when it makes sense to do so. This avoids the Procrustes bed of all units of government below the federal states being the same size and having the same powers.

    @paul barker “Most voters just don’t love Voting the way we Politicos do.”
    In my experience, voters will vote if they believe their vote will influence the result and if they think the body they are electing someone to can respond to concerns and get the job done. Lack of transparency and hence of understanding how the system works can turn voters off, which means structures should be as simple as possible.

    @Yorkshire Guidon “75% want devolved power to Yorkshire.”
    And a good thing too if it wakes the Westminster bubble up to the need to secure responsive governance throughout the UK. But I think the national issues must be dealt with first to secure the continued existence of the UK, and then the UK must work out how to deliver government of the people by the people wherever they are located. What the Scottish referendum is telling us, whatever the outcome of the vote this Thursday, is that the UK is now in the last chance saloon and has to get these issues resolved soon or perish.

  • Simon Banks 19th Sep '14 - 8:50pm

    One might argue that if James I and VI was a politician, so were earlier kings, and so James was not the first to want to bring the two kingdoms together, as both Edward I and Edward II of England tried to do that. Their methods, of course, were rather different.

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